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BWW Review: MARTHA GRAHAM DANCE COMPANY Thrives Anew in 2017

The venerable Martha Graham Dance Company, founded 91 years ago in 1926, is thriving anew after getting past protracted legal battles following modern dance pioneer Graham's death and coping with the loss of historical material during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Much of the credit for the success of the current iteration of the troupe goes to Janet Eilber, a former Graham principal who has been at the helm as Artistic Director since 2005. She has instituted a policy of not only presenting Graham's classics but also commissioning fresh visions from today's finest choreographers.

On the evening of February 17th 2017 at The Joyce Theater, I took in one of the three programs offered during the company's two-week New York season. A stunning video by Peter Sparling called Sacred/Profane, which is the theme of the run, was projected onto a screen as the dancegoers were finding their seats. The video had its World Premiere on opening night, February 14th. A note on the company's website explains that the theme "highlights the mystical, spiritual and humorous aspects of magical thinking". Eilber reiterated this concept in a charming pre-curtain speech and, as always, gave the audience a heads up about what to expect during the evening along with some insider's anecdotes about her experience working with Graham.

Program B opened with Graham's 1931 "Primitive Mysteries, to the music of Louis Horst with costumes designed by Graham herself. Eilber, in her speech, explained that the white dress for the lead dancer as the Virgin/Madonna was inspired by Graham's memory from her childhood of a cactus flower called the night blooming cereus. Eilber also drew our attention to the "tribal circles" in the choreography, reminiscent of the ceremonial walking patterns of Native Americans in the Southwest. Indeed, walking is the predominant movement in this piece, a deliberate heel-to-toe gait performed by the lead dancer and the all-female ensemble in blue. The effect for me was mesmerizing. I marveled that this work, created a full 86 years ago, still feels groundbreaking today. That amounts to Graham's genius on display for sure. Kudos to Eilber and Senior Artistic Associate Denise Vale for knowing that because dance is an ephemeral art form, each new generation of dancers must be charged with preserving what has gone before as well as tackling what is contemporary.

Ah, but what a joy to see the youthful company members displaying their 21st century technique and energy! In the evening's second piece, an all-male cast performed Nacho Duato's 2013 "Rust", with a score by Avo Part and additional music by Pedro Alcalde. The men darted and leaped and tumbled and lifted one another and piled on one another in ever-evolving choreographic patterns, seemingly with intimations of torture. As frightening as that possibility sounds, the experience of watching the interactions was riveting for me.

Next up after an intermission was "Mosaic" by the Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui with music by Felix Burton. The piece had its World Premiere on February 15th 2017 at the Joyce. Eilber reminded us during her speech that we were only the second audience to see this work. She explained that the choreographer wanted to show that stone by stone each mosaic celebrates diversity. A sensuous Middle Eastern movement quality predominated, punctuated with daring acrobatics and innovative lifts. When I chatted briefly with Eilber during a pause in the program, she said that the dancers are so good that they make her job easy. Full disclosure: Eilber and I were dance students together as teenagers at the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan, and later we were both dance faculty members during a summer at Interlochen. However, I have never let connections influence my reviews. Eilber's assertion that the dancers maker her job easy is an overstatement. She clearly brings great talent and vision to her position. Even so, she's correct about the gifted and dedicated members of the Graham company today.

The closure of Program B was the beloved 1948 Graham masterpiece "Diversion of Angels", a celebration of love - and a perfect example of Graham's gift for writing enticing titles. Years ago, when I was a fledgling dance critic at the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison, I wrote that "the piece is set to the joyful, eminently danceable music of Norman Dello Joio" and that "the dancers moved with infectious, rhythmic abandon". Check, and check. The same holds true now. Eilber told us that Graham had let her know that the Couple in White, the Couple in Red, and the Couple in Yellow might be three different women with their lovers or the same woman at three different stages of her life. For me, the latter scenario is the most enthralling. As for the dancing, I was especially impressed by Charlotte Landreau in Yellow, with her astonishing split leaps that seemed to take off from no visible preparation and her hugely exuberant demeanor. I also appreciated Xin Ying in Red, who came the closest to embodying Graham's signature technique with off-center tilts and core contractions. Not all of these young dancers have mastered the true Graham style at this point, but they're getting close. I have no doubt that Eilber and Vale will keep coaching them until they become eminent purveyors of a treasured part of dance history that is fortunately no longer on the brink of being lost.

Here's the roster for the entire Graham run at the Joyce. Catch it if you can!

Curtain Chat: Wed, Feb 22

Program A - Feb 14 at 7:30 pm; Feb 16 at 8 pm; Feb 19 at 7:30 pm; Feb 24 at 8 pm; Feb 26 at 2 pm
Dark Meadow Suite; Woodland; World Premiere of New Work by Annie-B Parson; Maple Leaf Rag

Program B - Feb 17, 18 at 8 pm; Feb 21 at 7:30 pm; Feb 23 at 8 pm; Feb 25 at 2 pm
Primitive Mysteries; Rust; World Premiere of New Work by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui; Diversion of Angels

Program C - Feb 19 at 2 pm; Feb 22 at 7:30 pm; Feb 25 at 8 pm; Feb 26 at 7:30 pm
Clytemnestra Act 2; World Premiere of New Work by Annie-B Parson; World Premiere of New Work by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui; Maple Leaf Rag

Photo credit: Hibbard Nash

Sondra Forsyth is the Editor-in-Chief of Broadway World Dance.

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